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Study: New Heart Transplant Method Could Save More Patients

In this photo provided by Duke Health, surgeons Dr. Jacob Schroder, left, and Dr. Zachary Fitch perform a heart transplant at Duke University Hospital in Durham, N.C., in October 2022. (Shawn Rocco/Duke Health via AP)
Study: New Heart Transplant Method Could Save More Patients
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Researchers say a new method for heart transplants could increase the number of available organs and save more lives.

Currently, most transplanted hearts come from donors who have been declared brain dead. This means the person no longer has signs of brain function after suffering a serious injury. In a brain death, machines can keep the body breathing and can provide oxygen to organs until they can be recovered and put on ice.

But the new method would take hearts from medical cases known as circulatory deaths. These cases are also known as donation after circulatory death, or DCD.

Circulatory deaths happen when a person has a nonsurvivable brain injury, but still has some brain function. In these cases, family members can decide to withdraw all life support measures. This means organs go without oxygen for a time before they can be recovered.

Currently, kidneys and some other organs are taken from people suffering circulatory deaths. But doctors have resisted using hearts because of possible organ damage from a lack of oxygen.

A new study suggests that hearts might also be recoverable from cases of circulatory deaths. Researchers at North Carolina’s Duke University School of Medicine led the study, which was recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The researchers said using hearts from circulatory deaths could possibly give thousands more patients a chance at a lifesaving transplant. And it could increase the number of donor hearts by 30 percent.

“Honestly if we could snap our fingers and just get people to use this, I think it probably would go up even more than that,” transplant doctor Jacob Schroder told The Associated Press. “This really should be standard of care,” he said.

With the new method, doctors can remove hearts in circulatory deaths and put them in a machine that “reanimates” them. This process pumps blood and nutrients through the heart as they are being transported. The organs can also be tested to make sure they are effectively functioning before they are transplanted.

The study involved multiple hospitals around the country, as well as 180 transplant patients. Half the patients received DCD hearts and half were given hearts from brain-dead donors that were transported on ice.

Survival rates six months later were about the same – 94 percent for recipients of cardiac-death donations and 90 percent for those who got the usual hearts, the researchers reported.

The findings are exciting and show the possibility “to increase fairness and equity in heart transplantation…” said Dr. Nancy Sweitzer. She is a heart transplant specialist at Washington University in St. Louis. Sweitzer, who was not part of the study, said she thinks the new method will permit more people with heart failure to receive lifesaving treatment.

In the U.S. last year, 4,111 heart transplants were performed. While this was a record number, it is not nearly enough to meet the need. Hundreds of thousands of people suffer from advanced heart failure but many are never offered a transplant. Still others die waiting for one.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

The Associated Press reported this story. Bryan Lynn adapted the report for VOA Learning English.

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Words in This Story

transplant – n. a medical operation in which an organ or other part that has been removed from the body of one person is put into the body of another person

function n. to work or operate

snap our fingers expression to make something happen immediately as if by magic

standard – n. a level of quality, especially a level that is acceptable

equity – n. fairness or justice in dealings between persons

advanced – n. having developed or progressed to a late stage


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